One hopes to find decent housing upon arrival in Germany... Stairwell living is like going to the dogs... (just kidding!)
I always get tickled when I see newcomers posting in our local Facebook groups, looking for housing ahead of time. I definitely understand why they do what they do. The prospect of looking for housing in a foreign country is daunting. No one wants to live in a hotel for weeks on end, especially if there are kids or pets in the mix. Bill and I have now moved to Germany twice and, both times, we spent weeks living in temporary quarters with two beagles (different ones each time). I know how much that can suck.
In the fall of 2007, we lived at the Vaihinger Hof for about six weeks. I'm not sure if the Vaihinger Hof is still operating. The one thing it had going for it, besides extreme pet friendliness and tolerance, was that it was very close to Patch. I also liked the people who were running it, although it was a very no frills hotel and not very clean. The reason we were at the Vaihinger Hof and not a military hotel is that they were all booked solid. This was before the Panzer Hotel existed; it was being built as we were leaving. There were three smaller hotels on Robinson, Patch, and Kelley and all three were full. We might have preferred the Marriott in Sindelfingen and, in fact, we spent our first night there. But all they had available were the executive rooms, which were way more expensive than what we could afford.
In 2007, many of the housing units on the four installations in Stuttgart were being renovated. There was absolutely no prayer that we would be living in a "stairwell apartment". So we started looking for a home to rent. We put our faith in the housing office, which at the time, had a rather bad reputation. I will stress that we were helped by the housing office and did find our first home in Germany through them-- actually very quickly, if I recall correctly. What kept us in the hotel for weeks was waiting for the landlord to get it ready for us. He and his ex wife had gotten divorced, so he had many years of memories to sort through and relocate. He also had to repaint the house before we could move in. So we lived in the hotel and tried many of the restaurants in downtown Vaihingen, because we had no kitchen facilities to speak of at the Vaihinger Hof.
Still, the Vaihinger Hof was a lot better than this place...
When we finally did move into our home in Pfäffingen, it was pretty far away from all the installations. It turned out to be great for us, though, because we don't have kids and my husband doesn't mind commuting. I'm sure for other people who come to the Stuttgart area, the prospect of trying to find affordable housing close to work and school and with all the things Americans love in housing seems very difficult. So they try to get a jump on it before they get here. I won't lie. Finding a good house within your budget can be difficult and worrisome. It's a rite of passage we all go through.
I just want to say "I get it" to those in America who are stressing over housing in Germany and trying to house hunt from the States. I did the same thing both times. Both times, we ended up living in rather obscure towns well outside of the American hot spots. The first time, my husband ended up paying slightly more than the housing allowance he got from the Army. The second time, in 2014, we found a less expensive place. What we pay is well under what his company gives him for housing. But again, we don't have kids and we don't live close to the American action. Actually, I kind of like it that way.
When we moved back here in 2014, we spent one week in a German hotel and then found a temporary apartment, where we stayed for three weeks until we could move into our current home. We found both our house in Jettingen and the temporary apartment on Stuttgart Bookoo. But, once you get here, you find that houses can be found in a variety of places. In some ways, it's a lot easier finding a home now than it was in 2007. Facebook is a huge help.
When newcomers post in the local Facebook groups about finding housing, there's often a tinge of eagerness, nervousness, and/or even a little bit of panic. Although I know this advice is hard to hear and even harder to heed, I would NOT recommend trying to find a house before you get here. The reason for that is that most decent houses get scarfed up very quickly. This is a place where people are constantly coming and going, so rental housing availability varies on a daily basis. There's no sense in whetting your appetite for food you may never get to taste, right? Also, if you're military, there is a very real chance that you won't get to live on the economy anyway, although again, the availability of government housing changes daily.
The most I would do is look for neighborhoods and communities you would be interested in seeing. Don't look at specific houses with a mind to rent them, though you might check out what they look like as a means of deciding what to bring with you. Study the area and decide what you must have in order to be happy. But, even as you do that, realize that you may very well end up somewhere else. We did both times, and both times it turned out better than fine.
Don't worry... your new home, whether on base or on the economy, will look better than this.
When people tell you that you might not be able to live off the installations, understand that they really are telling the truth. If you are here with the military and housing is available, you'll have to take it, make a very convincing case for why you can't take it, or pay out of pocket for your housing off base. Of course, some of the people telling you about this requirement may simply be slightly embittered because they live in stairwell housing and don't like it. On the other hand, other people actually seek housing in stairwells or move there against their will and end up loving it anyway.
Really, our community is mostly very friendly! The people telling you not to get your hopes up about living on the economy are not "crushing your head" by telling you that you might have to live in a stairwell!
There are some advantages to stairwell living. It's close and convenient to all things American. The commute is fairly easy. It may be easier to make local friends. You don't have to worry about idiosyncrasies of German life, like dealing with landlords and neighbors who don't speak English. Of course, living in stairwells also means sharing walls, losing privacy, and communal living among people who may not share your sense of community pride. But you can take heart in remembering that nothing is forever. Even if your housing situation sucks, it's only temporary.
The advice I would give to newcomers is to try not to stress too much about housing. You really can't control it too much from afar. German landlords are usually fairly choosy and they will want to meet you and your family before they rent to you. Also, even if you look from afar, as we tend to do in the United States, you won't get the best idea of what the neighborhood is like. Bill and I made the mistake of looking from afar when we moved from Fort Bragg to Fort Sam Houston. We visited the neighborhood, but weren't able to see inside the house ahead of time and, instead, relied on pictures. We were too eager to get out of the hotel and spent a year in a house we hated. Fortunately, it was only for a year. I will not make that mistake again (and hopefully I won't have to, now that Bill is retired).
Instead of focusing on the house hunt, focus more on what you'll be bringing and leaving behind. Consider that German houses often lack closets and do not have open floor plans. Kitchens tend to be small and the electric current is 220 rather than 110. I would recommend stocking up on dual voltage electronics and consider leaving 110 appliances in the States. Ditto to bulky furniture. Rooms in German homes are usually smaller and may not accommodate your big couch or television. We do have two king sized beds in our house. In fact, king beds may even be easier than queens, since they have split box springs. Bear in mind that your staircase may be spiral and your doorways could be narrow. And don't forget to bring your seasonal stuff if that's important to you. The first time we lived here, we forgot our Christmas decorations. I now have two trees and decorations for both. When we leave, I suspect one or both of our fake trees will be left behind.
Well, that's about it for my take on looking for a home in Germany. Don't worry. You'll find somewhere to live and chances are good that it'll end up being just great. Or, at least it will be habitable for as long as you're enjoying STAUgart! Welcome to the community and enjoy Germany!
*The photos above were taken when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia from 1995-97. The buildings pictured were in the city of Gyumri, which was hit by a terrible earthquake on December 7, 1988. As you can see, the buildings were still in a shambles in 1996 and '97, when those photos were taken. I have not been back to Armenia yet, but I'm thinking it's looking better now. You can read more about the photos and the earthquake here.